The US administration must radically rethink ways to achieve a sustainable Israeli-Arab peace deal or risk seeing the goal of a two-state solution slip away, experts have warned.
New realities in the Middle East, including the changes wrought by the Arab Spring and the rise of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, meant the old ways of doing business had to be shelved, they told a Washington symposium.
“If we don’t seize whatever opportunity there is in the present, the prospects for negotiating a solution anytime in the near future are really very slim,” said William Quandt, who as a member of the National Security Council was deeply involved in reaching the historic 1978 Camp David accords.
“Maybe it’s already too late, I don’t think we will ever know unless we give it a serious try,” he added, arguing it was ultimately in the US security interest to secure a peace deal.
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, initiated by President Barack Obama, have stalled since late 2010, and there has been a perceived lack of appetite for a renewed US engagement in the region.
But the recent war in Gaza was “a microcosm of the tectonic shifts that President Obama is going to have to confront,” warned Robert Malley from the International Crisis Group.
The three traditional pillars for peacemaking — strong Israeli-Palestinian entities, Arab nations ready to help the US and pressure the Palestinians, and a credible United States — “have all eroded,” Malley said.
Therefore, America’s way of looking at the decades-old conflict had to change, argued Malley, program director at the ICG.
“Just as you can’t wage yesterday’s war, you can’t wage yesterday’s peace… We have to rethink the solution that we all thought we knew,” he said, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to mark the launch of a new book “Pathways to Peace.”
A series of top experts writing in the book have suggested ways for Obama to embark on a serious effort in his second term to bring together the Israelis and Palestinians.
Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher agreed Obama’s task lay between the “difficult and the impossible,” concerned that both a two-state solution and the Arab peace initiative, which he helped launch, were dying.
Obama must engage the Middle East region almost immediately after being inaugurated in January, he argued.
Behind-the-scenes talks should seek to secure what Muasher called “endgame deposits” — a clear idea of each side’s final position on some of the core issues still to be resolved, including the return of Palestinian refugees.
The US administration should also discuss with Saudi Arabia what it would take “for them to supervise the process.”
It was also vital to start setting the contours of the two states, said Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, and now Princeton professor, who edited the book.
“Until we know where the state of Israel is and isn’t, until we know where the state of Palestine is or isn’t, everything else becomes commentary,” he said, adding that extensive work had already been done on the issue.
Obama had “got it right,” Kurtzer noted, when he said that discussions should start at the point of the 1967 borders, knowing that as the negotiations proceed these will change with mutually-agreed upon land swaps.
America must also be prepared to engage with Hamas, currently considered a terrorist group by the United States, which maintains ties with the Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
Quandt looked back to the days when the United States had to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). “Now everybody looks at Fatah and the PLO as model citizens… We had to start talking to them when they were anything but model citizens.”
“It really doesn’t make sense for us to put our heads in the sand and pretend that Fatah is what it once was,” agreed Malley.
“That it has the ability to generate popular support like it once did, and that Hamas is as marginalized as it may have been in the 1990s. None of that holds any more.”
It was also vitally important for Obama to “find your team,” argued analyst Aaron David Miller, and for him to empower his next secretary of state as Hillary Clinton prepares to step down.
Miller, now vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, spent two decades at the State Department formulating US policy on the Middle East.
What was needed, he said, was a “conflict-ending agreement” which resolved all the outstanding core issues and allowed each side to say “we may never love you, but our business with you is done.”
However, “I do not see with my eyes… the prospects of that kind of agreement materializing any time soon,” he warned, adding the two sides currently existed in a kind of twilight zone between peace and confrontation.
“In my view the pursuit of a two-state solution right now is too complicated to succeed, but too important, resonant and relevant still to fail.”